The Switzerland County School Board on Monday night voted to proceed with plans for the demolition of the old school building on Seminary Street.
The building, which has served as an elementary school and was Vevay High School for a time, most recently served as the administration building before health concerns over sewage in the basement and asbestos in the structure led to the administrators relocating to the middle school and then to the current administration building once construction was completed.
The future of the old school has been an on again, off again conversation among school boards since 2009; as boards past and present grapple with the question of investing what could be large sums of money to bring the building back to standards, but with no plans to utilize it in the future. Boards have discussed using the building as a Hall of Fame and a museum of sorts for school artifacts, but board members have struggled with a rehabilitation investment that could reach hundreds of thousands of dollars, with no real way to recoup that investment moving forward.
The facilities and grounds committee of the school board has been working on a solution for the past several months; and at Monday night’s meeting Superintendent Mike Jones provided members with a report that found the evidence of asbestos in the plaster, the roof, and in some flooring at the building’s entrance. The findings did not include an estimate on the cost of removing the asbestos, but board members agreed that whether the building was demolished or saved and renovated, the asbestos will have to be dealt with, as there are very specific regulations on dealing with the material.
At Monday’s meeting, facilities and grounds member Joe Bennett said that the board had been wrestling with this matter for too long, and made a motion to have the building demolished, but to wait until after the annual meeting of the Vevay Alumni Association in August, because some alumni wanted the opportunity to take pictures of the building. After a few moments of silence by other board members, Amy Combs seconded the motion.
That’s when some frank discussion began.
School board member Jill Cord, who has been a proponent of saving the building, read a written statement to the board members. In that statement, she noted that she had spoken with Switzerland County Auditor Gayle Rayles about money that Switzerland County Tourism receives from riverboat revenues. Cord noted that she had also spoken with Tourism Commission President Steve Jones-Ellard.
In her statement, Cord said, “On May 12 I met with Switzerland Co. auditor, Gayle Rayles, to request some public access information regarding the monies received by the county’s Tourism Organization from the Belterra casino admissions revenue, and from the innkeepers tax for 2010, through the first quarter of 2017.
“The auditor gave me a 7 page print out of distributions to the tourism organization from these two casino sources for this 7 year period. Typically Tourism receives payments from the casino nine times a year. By doing some math I discovered that for the last seven years distributions to tourism have ranged from $636,000 a year in 2010 to $540,000 a year for 2016.
“During this seven year period, the tourism committee of Switzerland County has received $3,783,551 from the admissions and innkeepers tax collected at Belterra. The Tourism committee has also received $39,070 in grants, giving this organization $3,822,621 or an average of way over 1/2 million dollars per year. This amount is for tourism activities in a community with fewer than 11,000 residents.
“As a school board member and a taxpayer I believe that our school board and superintendent should formally request that the Tourism organization partner with our school corporation in an attempt to repurpose the old Vevay Grade School for a school museum, or community meeting place for tourism and special school related activities.”
Superintendent Jones said that he had visited with the Tourism Commission in the past, and there was no interest in using funds to save the school building; and other school board members said that this matter has been in the public since 2009 and in front of the community in the past few months with public meetings and newspaper articles, and very few, if any, residents have expressed a desire to save the building.
Bennett noted that the school corporation was going to soon ask parents to begin paying for student textbooks again after having no fees for many years; and the that the tax dispute between the county and Belterra could mean that the school corporation may not get its full payment from county property taxes in the next two draws. He said that he believes that the community would have a problem if the school board invested a large amount of money to save the old building, while asking parents and taxpayers to pay more.
School Board President Katie Collier said that she believed that the main focus of the board should be the education of the children who are in the schools right now, making sure that they have all of the tools that they need to excel. She couldn’t see spending tax dollars on something that wouldn’t directly benefit the children.
Cord said that she believed that the school board should contact Historic Landmarks of Indiana in an effort to get the building placed on the “10 Most Endangered Buildings” list in Indiana; and also produced a binder filled with work by former students who had researched and cataloged historic buildings in the town of Vevay, noting that some of the buildings included in the project were no longer there.
Board member Greg Bosaw said that he was indifferent as to saving the building or not, but noted that either way the asbestos was going to have to be taken care of. He wondered if the board might move forward with removing the asbestos, and then consider the fate of the building itself later. School Corporation Treasurer Wilma Swango noted that beginning the process of removing the material would be problematic, because if the roof needs to be removed, then the board would have to know its next step because the school couldn’t sit without a roof for a period of time.
School Board member Tye Sullivan said that he still feels like the school board is, “kicking that can further down the road”, and that at some point a decision needs to be made. He agreed that he was having trouble justifying spending potentially large amounts of money that could be directed to programs and projects that would benefit children now.
After more discussion, it was decided to proceed with a vote on Bennett’s motion to demolish, with board members noting that it also gives those in support of saving the building some time to find a financial solution. If such a plan is formulated and is feasible, the board noted that the motion could be rescinded at some point.
Board members then approved the motion by a 6-1 vote, with Collier, Josh Deck, Bennett, Sullivan, Bosaw, and Combs voting in favor; and Cord opposing the motion.